Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2016
On February 25, 2016, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a construction permit to SHINE Medical Technologies for a $100 million factory in Janesville, Wisconsin to produce molybdenum-99 (moly-99).
Press coverage of the permit caught our attention because the firm’s promotional materials promise that its production method “generates less waste” than other methods.
Moly-99 decays to “technetium-99m,” which is used in medical scans to identify the stages of certain cancers, to diagnose heart disease, and in other diagnostic procedures. SHINE, headquartered in Madison, expects to produce over one quarter of the global demand for moly-99, and the Janesville factory will provide a US source of the medical isotope. Such a source will help avoid supply problems like the current suspension of imports from Canada and The Netherlands, which have both shut down production reactors because of leaks and other safety violations.
SHINE’s public information says the company’s process involves the use of neither a nuclear reactor nor highly enriched uranium (HEU)—used in most current production methods—eliminating the risk of diversion or theft of weapons usable nuclear materials. Notwithstanding these benefits, there appears to be little advantage over current methods of production in terms of liquid, post-reprocessing radioactive waste.
SHINEmed.com says the firm “was founded to deploy a safe, cost-effective and environmentally friendly technology to produce medical isotopes.” It boasts a “patented, proprietary manufacturing process” that it says “uses less electricity [and] generates less waste” than conventional production methods. Additional radioactive materials produced by SHINE will include iodine-131, iodine-125, and xenon-133.
While SHINE’s production of moly-99 will employ low-enriched uranium (LEU), its radioactive waste materials mostly are the same, along with attendant risks of accidents along transportation routes. Low Enriched Uranium will arrive at the southern Wisconsin facility and SHINE’s new system will produce moly-99 using an “ion-beam” or “gas target neutron generator.” The neutrons will be used to fission uranium atoms, producing a host of “fission products” (broken bits of uranium atoms) including moly-99, iodine-131, and xenon-133.
The Janesville Gazette’s editorial board said on the opinion page that, “Residents shouldn’t fear the small amounts of uranium waste.” But according to Dr. Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, additional radioactive wastes from the process include cesium-137, strontium-90, plutonium-239, and the radioactive varieties of krypton and argon gas. Neither the radioactive or toxic character of the generated waste, nor its volume, is explained on SHINE’s website.
SHINE’s factory will be across Highway 51 from the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, according to the Gazette. “Isotopes disintegrate quickly—thus SHINE’s desire to build across from the airport so it could speed its product to market,” the paper reported.
SHINE declined to answer Nukewatch’s questions about the source of its LEU and the nature and volume of its radioactive waste. Spokesperson Katrina Pitas wrote in an email, “It appears our two organizations have directly opposing goals. Because of this, we respectfully decline to provide comment for your article.”
SHINE has benefited from generous funding from the federal government including $15 million from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration to produce radioisotopes without weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. The City Council of Janesville approved a $9 million incentive package for SHINE in 2012.
SHINE hopes to open its factory in three years pending NRC approval of an operating permit. There are other methods for producing medical isotopes that do not require the use of uranium at all, whether LEU or HEU and that do not produce highly radioactive waste containing fission products.
—KL & JL
—Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility emails June 14, 7, & May 25; SHINE Medical Technologies, email, June 2; Janesville Gazette, Mar. 2; Minneapolis StarTribune, Feb. 26; & SHINE press release, Feb. 25, 2016; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 26, 2015, & Mar. 28, 2010.
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